Why Interoperability Is Key to Safer Smart Cities in the COVID Era

The pandemic has added new pressures for deploying technological solutions for the enforcement of health and safety regulations.

For many years, public safety and city IT officials have navigated the growing complexities of a safe city infrastructure — a task complicated enough without the added element of a global pandemic.

The effects of COVID-19 have added new pressures of deploying technological solutions for the enforcement of health and safety regulations and, in an ideal world, integrate those individual offerings into a city-wide management platform that provides that cohesive picture of public safety, traffic and environmental conditions of our cities.

The technology that enables us to assemble and analyze this data relies heavily on the ability to integrate different technologies into a centralized management platform.

The sheer number and variety of potential data points can be somewhat overwhelming: license plate recognition (LPR) or traffic cameras to monitor vehicle speed, pedestrian activity at intersections; air quality sensors; fill-level sensors on municipal trash bins; or gunshot detection analytics deployed by local police.

Additionally, we now have guidelines to uphold for occupancy management on public transportation and in bus or train stations, as well as social distancing requirements for all public places.

The implementation of these solutions requires a vast amount of data and information gathering. As standards dictate how all this data is communicated, they are a key component to driving our smart cities forward, allowing municipalities to choose the right technology for their specific application.

In a world where technology and features change quickly, the “build once and maintain forever” scenario is not practical or attractive, as it severely limits an end user’s ability to try new technology and/or different vendors’ products and requires a substantial financial commitment to those specific manufacturers and proprietary interfaces.

This article will show how ONVIF can help to enable interoperability for smart city initiatives — aiding cities all over the world in implementing technologies to optimize health safety and security.

Integrating the Many Parts of a Smart City

There are operational challenges that accompany the many systems that are included in a safe city deployment. Achieving interoperability continues to present one of the greatest obstacles, particularly with video management systems, video recording devices and cameras.

The most common scenario is that municipalities have several different management systems for city operations that were created by different manufacturers, each with proprietary interfaces for integration. In order to connect its different systems together, cities often end up with more of a patchwork approach to systems integration, for which the continuing costs of maintaining that connectivity between systems becomes prohibitively expensive.

This is where the need for robust and well-defined standards comes into play, particularly for video surveillance, which is most commonly at the heart of safe city deployments. Standards, such as those from ONVIF, provide the common link between disparate components of safe city systems.

Designed specifically to overcome the challenges in multi-vendor environments, ONVIF’s common interfaces facilitate communication between technologies from different manufacturers and foster an interoperable system environment where system components can be used interchangeably, provided they conform to the ONVIF specification.

ONVIF has published a number of specifications and profiles for effective integration of devices and clients in the physical security industry. For video security systems, ONVIF has released Profile S for video streaming, Profile T for advanced video streaming and Profile G for storage and playback. In addition to these video profiles, ONVIF has also released Profile C for IP-based access control and Profile A for broader access control configuration. Both of these profiles support the integration between access control and video surveillance.

Additionally, our recently introduced Release Candidate for Profile M would standardize the communication of metadata for smart applications. This new proposal would further facilitate interoperability as the market continues to see an increase in the number of smart applications for security, business intelligence and IoT devices.

Export File Format

As cities and municipalities often rely on public/private partnerships with large corporate stakeholders, this often holds true in the safe city environment as well. In the event of an incident, law enforcement often request access to video footage from private camera networks that may have collected evidence of an incident they are investigating.

To most effectively perform these investigations, the ability to playback video from different sources is especially important in responding to event types. These files are typically exported in different formats, making it difficult for law enforcement to correlate, and analyze the video data, as demonstrated by the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, where more than 120 FBI analysts reviewed in excess of 13,000 videos before discovering key evidence in the footage.

The ONVIF Export File Format enables law enforcement as well as private users to more quickly and efficiently conduct forensic investigations using video of an incident from multiple sources.

The specification standardizes the file format and ensures a unified timestamp, which enables law enforcement the ability to accurately reconstruct a timeline of events during forensic investigation across a variety of different video sources. Export File Format also detects modifications to individual pieces of footage and preserves the digital authenticity of the footage with multiple signers, for example the video surveillance operator exporting the footage as well as the investigating officer.

Having a standard approach, often a challenge in multi-vendor environments, will increase the efficiency of the process. The export file format specification from ONVIF has been adopted for use by U.S federal law enforcement and also by the International Electrotechnical Commission as a global standard for video export and playback.

ONVIF specifications and profiles make it possible not only to integrate devices in multi-vendor video security system deployments in safe city environments but offer an effective common export file format that can streamline post-event investigations where authorities are trying to react as fast as possible.

The push toward smarter, safer cities will continue to grow, as will the need for greater interoperability as municipalities seek to deploy new solutions to meet new challenges. With standardized approaches, cities can leverage the individual capabilities of many different standalone but interoperable solutions to create a solution that meets their own unique needs.


Leo Levit is Chairman of the ONVIF Steering Committee.

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